I liked to think I was a feminist.
After today, I’m not so sure anymore. Some of my friends whom I’ve taken inspiration from in the past for their feminist literature and beliefs have been sharing responses to the Dove ad I’m sure you’ve all seen by now; the one where a forensic artist who looks kind of like Gil Grissom from CSI draws women twice without ever seeing them.
I really liked this ad.
It made me feel good about life and perception of beauty and all of that stuff. It didn’t really make me think “buy Dove, be beautiful!” But then again, I’m a guy; I think I might have some of Dove’s men’s hair+body in my shower at the moment, but to be honest, as a guy, I don’t really
know care. When I shop for toiletries, I don’t really look at brands; I shop prices—except I think we can all agree, Axe really does kinda stink.
Startlingly, there’s an overwhelmingly small number of men in the ad.
Sarcasm aside, I was surprised this morning when a few of my feminist friends started sharing published attacks on the Dove ad, some claiming it was “anti-feminist.”
I’m really curious about this backlash. It’s apparent to me that the writers of these pieces are speaking from some kind of communal perception. Something about the ad must have scratched them the wrong way—otherwise, I can’t see why multiple people from unrelated backgrounds would have had the urge to share their similar feelings independently—and so eloquently.
Would these writers still lash out against the short video if that little quote and Dove’s logo didn’t pop up at the end like some Cold War-era propaganda scheme? Would they be so agitated if this was truly just a social experiment to see how a forensic artist interpreted people’s (okay, women’s) views of themselves compared to others’ views of them?
This is an important topic for some people like, say, young actors. How others see us is the key to knowing how to best market ourselves, particularly early in our career.
What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have.
Setting aside the fact that, as an actor, I’m in the last business that can (and actually must) discriminate by gender/age/skin color/etc., I for one don’t feel like Dove was trying to say, “How you look affects your life choices.” However, how one feels about themselves does affect their choice of friends, their job, etc. I’ll bet that people who are happier in life probably have more accurate self-descriptions. However, because it was, in the end, an advertisement and not an unweighted social experiment, the stories were going to be cherry picked.
Dove selected women not because they thought they weren’t beautiful, but because they thought they weren’t beautiful.
Dove anti-aging ad
Let’s look at which descriptors the editors chose to include. When the participants described themselves, these were some of the things that were implied as negatives: fat, rounder face, freckles, fatter, 40— starting to get crows feet, moles, scars… Whereas some of the implied positive descriptors used by others were: thin face, nice thin chin, nice eyes that lit up when she spoke and were very expressive (my actual favorite), short and cute nose, her face was fairly thin (this was said twice), and very nice blue eyes. So… I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes. If you’re fat or old… uh, maybe other people don’t think you look as fat and old as you do yourself? Great?
So, from all the applicants and auditionees, the majority of women who were picked by the
editors people who designed the ad to illustrate Dove’s point were Caucasian women, blonde of hair and blue of eye? Could we not, through this same selective logic, come to the conclusion that Caucasian women with blonde hair and blue eyes are more depressed with their lives, and it shows in their view of themselves, whereas African/Asian Americans may just tend to be happier?
I’ll admit that it’s a stretch, but so is to say that all Dove cares about is the aforementioned white bunch. Both could be true, but neither can be gleaned, even from the full six-and-a-half minute video and accompanying website.
Time magazine calls it a “short documentary,” but it’s just another commercial for all of the products parent company Unilever sells under the Dove umbrella, like deodorant and soap. It’s not exactly a commercial for the products Unilever sells under different brands, like diet chocolate shake in a can Slim-Fast and Rejuveness anti-wrinkle cream, because buying those products suggests you’re not ready to claim your role as a “real woman” who was lucky enough to be born with a relatively pleasing face that you will only really see when it’s reflected back to you by some dude who used to work for the cops and a lady you just met in the green room.
Yes, it was an advertisement. Yes, it was ultimately designed to sell soap. Yes, it addresses some general truths about women’s perception of their own beauty. This is a cultural phenomenon that, agree or disagree, a significant portion of American women seem to have an opinion on, not unlike another advertisement for soap: the soap opera; why are people proposing we stop sharing it?
We’re also accepting a broader assumption—that these aren’t all just actors—and that it’s all only based on true stories and data and transformed through the lens of an advertisement to cater to Dove’s primary demographic, which might be 90 percent Caucasian women blonde of hair and blue of eye. This is also a possibility. You know those nine-out-of-ten doctors you see on national spots sharing their expert opinions about that prescription medicine? Let me tell you—when I start to get the salt n’ pepper look going, I’m going to be the best doctor/lawyer/professional you’ve never actually seen.
Here’s another experiment. Find a 4-year-old and ask her to draw a picture of you. At the same time, blindfold yourself and draw a self-portrait. You might be surprised to learn that through a child’s innocent eyes, you’re actually a potato with a shock of purple hair, sticks for limbs and a triangular nose that rests somewhere south of where you always imagined your neck to be.
Imagine, instead, seeing yourself through the eyes of a preschooler with a developmentally appropriate understanding of perspective and anatomy. Every drawing she makes of every woman looks pretty uniform — same potato head and torso, same stick arms — because we’re all the same, aren’t we? Except you get a scrawl of purple hair, because she thinks you’re a princess and also she can’t find her brown crayon. That’s how she sees you. How do you see yourself?
Let’s set aside the fact that my blind-drawing abilities are probably being a little overestimated here—put the blindfold aside and I still might wind up looking like
something resembling a potato. This has more to do with my inability to draw than my opinion of myself. Why I say I’m a feminist is because I support pay and employment opportunity for all people regardless of gender/color/sexual orientation/etc. But I will not submit that we are all the same. Feminism, as I recall it, was about celebrating differences, not eliminating them. I’m a boy, you’re a girl; aren’t we awesome?
Would you find it fascinating if a soap company that catered exclusively to men right around my age demographic might perhaps design an advertisement based exactly on what Erin just described—how I as a four-year-old/preschooler saw myself at my current age?
That’s right. At the bright age of four years old, I wanted to be an astronaut (the part about spontaneously waking up with supermodel-pretty women who I’m sure have many other lovely qualities about them in white bedsheets came later).
To say, “Stop sharing this ad, it’s anti-feminist” seems counter-intuitive. No, this video must be shared, because it starts dialogues like this. I agree with the calls to action from both of the authors: women, stop using your perceived beauty—or lack thereof—as a crutch; you are more than your body. So I ask, “Why?” Why stop sharing? Because it’s an ad? Advertisements also brought us one of the coolest posters ever (which I’ve still yet to buy), one of the most pertinent economic recession calls to action this decade (I drive a Ford) and some of the coolest yoga videos I’ve ever seen (I’m not a member).
I would go so far as to add that a bar of soap, while perhaps able to exfoliate pores and remove dead skin and dirt from the skin’s outermost layers, will not magically and miraculously transform a woman into a Disney princess right before the marriage scene. I hope that this is not news to anyone. If that message exists, it’s that little blip at the end of the advertisement that offers a polite and somewhat shyly proposed suggestion to the question asked earlier in the ad.
It could be worse—you could have ads telling you to save water by group showering, which implies that attractive members of the other sex will only (but eagerly) agree to if you use their product.
Accepting that this is an advertisement, the question you should be asking yourself should be, “Does this video make me want to go out and buy Dove on my next jaunt to the groceries?”
How you answer that is entirely up to you.
However, in the mean time, I’m sure that there must be a place out there where we can find articles about real women sharing real stories about their real experiences and epiphanies with beauty; not just beauty of the flesh, but inner beauty, dare I say “true” beauty.
If only we could find such a place.
Kevin Macku is a fledgling yogi in the body of a 20-something who has held a number of scandalous love affairs with words. His bachelor’s degree is in dramatic performance, and he has appeared in local stage and film productions in the past few years. Since graduation, he has found himself in the middle of a spiritual revolution, and has set about recording what he can for posterity. Like his writing? Follow him on Facebook and Twitter!
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta